Andy Sullivan: Against the Grain
As the United States prospered during the Roaring Twenties, so did New York City’s iconic department store, Macy’s. After going public in 1922, R. H. Macy & Company started to acquire competitors and open regional locations. Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan’s Herald Square did such a brisk business that it expanded in 1924 to cover an entire city block stretching from Broadway to Seventh Avenue along 34th Street.
To showcase the opening of the “World’s Largest Store” and its 1 million square feet of retail space at the start of the busy holiday shopping season, Macy’s decided to throw New York a parade on Thanksgiving morning. In spite of its timing, the parade was not actually about Thanksgiving at all but the next major holiday on the calendar, Christmas. Macy’s hoped its “Christmas parade” would whet the appetites of customers for a holiday shopping feast.
The idea of a store-sponsored Thanksgiving parade did not originate with Macy’s however, but with Philadelphia’s Gimbel Brothers Department Store, which first staged a Thanksgiving procession in 1920 with 50 people, 15 cars and a fireman dressed as Santa Claus, who ushered in the Christmas season. Like Macy’s, J.L. Hudson’s department Store in Detroit also planned a similar event in 1924. In New York, however, the only Thanksgiving parade that had previously passed through the city’s streets was its peculiar tradition of children painting their tattered clothes to masquerade as “ragamuffins” who asked “anything for Thanksgiving” as they went door-to-door asking for pennies, apples and pieces of candy. At 9 a.m. on the sunlit morning of November 27, 1924, Macy’s gave the children of New York a particularly special Thanksgiving treat as a police escort led the start of the parade from the intersection of 145th Street and Convent Avenue. The early-morning start time of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade overlapped with many church services but gave its spectators plenty of time to make it to the afternoon’s big football game between Syracuse and Columbia universities at the Polo Grounds.
Macy’s had promised parade goers a “marathon of mirth” in its full-page newspaper advertisements. While the parade route may not have extended over 26 miles, its 6-mile length certainly made for a long hike for those marching from Harlem to Herald Square. The spectators who stood four and five people deep, however, could watch it all in just a matter of minutes since the modest street pageant stretched the length of only two city blocks.
To match the nursery-rhyme theme in Macy’s Christmas window display in 1924, floats featured Mother Goose favorites such as the old woman who lived in a shoe, Little Miss Muffet and Little Red Riding Hood. Macy employees dressed as clowns, cowboys and sword-wedeling knights. For more, head to www.history.com.
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